Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Knots And Reparations

What do we mean when we talk about justice in history?

Yesterday I posted a notice about an upcoming UCLA academic conference that is going to focus on how to start talking about “reparations” for historical wrongs against gays, women, and other “marginalized subjectivities”. You know how that goes. A reader writes:

Regarding your post today on the “gender reparations” conference, I have to wonder how Ta-Nehisi Coates would feel about this. In June 2014, Coates wrote his Atlantic piece “The Case for Reparations”, which regardless of your political viewpoint or your attitude toward Coates, deserves discussion on the intellectual merits. I believe that he does indeed make a compelling argument regarding the role of the federal government in forced segregation and exploitation of African Americans, more recently by redlining policies in housing, but older policies as well, going all the way back to slavery. He makes a case that, as the federal government doled out reparations to the Japanese who were interned during WWII under the auspices of Washington, African Americans ought to be entitled to reparations from the government for exploitative federal policies. An important thing to note about his argument is that he focuses on tangible, specific wrongs – policies adopted by the federal government impacting individuals, though at a nationwide scale. Thus he makes the case for federal reparations, as opposed to an “individual reparations account.”

I don’t think you have to agree with Coates to realize that, given this history of slavery and segregation in our country, discussing reparations for the African American community is at least a legitimate political discussion. But what about reparations for transgendered people? As you laugh at this upcoming conference, I can’t help but think that this sort of thing is in danger of making a mockery of the whole notion of reparations. I mean, I can understand a federal commission for distributing reparations to the descendents of slaves and African Americans who have been negatively affected by a host of federal policies. Can you imagine how reparations for transgendered people would be carried out? Every April the number of transgendered people in the country would spike as everyone checks off the “transgendered reparations credit” box on their tax returns. And how to audit them or tell them that they weren’t “feeling trans” on tax day?

Now, granted, I have no idea what these people are talking about or proposing at their conference, but given the “fluidity” of gender identity as opposed to something fixed like ancestry, it seems to me that dragging gender into the reparations discussion, rather than make people take gender seriously, will turn reparations into a meaningless farce. Which is really too bad, since I do think that the history of slavery and Jim Crow and federal housing policies warrants a serious discussion of reparations.

I appreciate the letter. I did read Coates’s long piece last year, and while I was not convinced that reparations would be feasible (politically or otherwise), or even just at this point in American history, there can be no doubt that what people of African descent in this country suffered individually and collectively as a result of slavery, as well as subsequent racist laws and practices, cannot be compared to anything suffered by any other group in this country, with the possible exception of Native Americans. The reader is right: this conference renders the whole notion of reparations comical beyond redemption. Trans on tax day! Hilarious.

In all candor, the reparations discussion on race alone is never going to be taken seriously by the general public, though. What I’m more concerned about is the increasing impossibility of talking across racial and political lines about race, period. Take a look at this NPR commentary  from earlier this week, written by a black man named Gene Demby. The headline: “A Discomfiting Question: Was The Chicago Torture Case Racism?” Excerpts:

Whatever the reasons for the kidnapping, his captors cursed his whiteness. The legal specifics of the charges probably matter less than the message they send: Weren’t these kidnappers clearly racist? Didn’t they deserve the vilification that came with that description?

In conversations about this case with friends and colleagues of color, I noticed that folks were straining mightily to avoid using the word racism, as if saying it might be an admission of something. I was squirming right along with them, and it took me awhile to figure out why.

In some ways, this case being called a “hate crime,” while a legal designation, might give people a rhetorical reprieve, as it allows us to talk about bias and violence without having to fight over the definition of racism.

It reminded me of something Phillip Atiba Goff, who runs the Center for Policing Equity at John Jay College, told me a few weeks ago. “One of the most important achievements of the Civil Rights Movement was to take the authority over moral character away from white men,” Goff told me. “There’s no credential that [restores it] — having a black friend or relative is not sufficient.”

Before then, white people were the only ones who could define what was righteous and correct — often at the expense of the rights and safety of black Americans. Goff said that the casting of racism as an evil worthy of condemnation made all the ways white people expressed their bigotry taboo. Those taboos are, in part, what people are referring to when they rail against political correctness. And while those new constraints certainly didn’t end racism, they suppressed behaviors that created space for people of color to live more fully in America.

And that, to me, seems a big part of what we’re really discussing in stories like the one in Chicago, and what makes these conversations (and writing this) so discomfiting. In calling the kidnapping and assault racism, we’re staking claim to moral language — and uniquely powerful moral language — to which white people can’t easily lay claim, even in cases like the one in Chicago, which seems to qualify for the most vehement reproach available.


And it’s why, I suspect, the folks of color I talked to seemed so visibly uncomfortable. Calling what happened in Chicago racism seems to cede at least some of that moral authority to the many people who we suspect are engaging in conversations about race and racism in bad faith; people who want to push the conversation in the direction of a false, ahistorical equanimity.

Is racism as expressed by centuries of white torture and discrimination the same as the racism of the four black people in Chicago? It’s a distasteful comparison. It’s as if you’re downplaying the misery of the young man in the video by reducing this conversation to semantics.

But consider what’s already happening with folks from the right-wing Internet, where people are holding up the Chicago case as the handiwork of black activist groups like Black Lives Matter (despite the complete lack of evidence that anyone involved in the kidnapping has ties to the organization). It seems that the people who have embraced this ridiculous claim — the hashtag #BLMkidnapping was used hundreds of thousands of times on Twitter — want to prove some kind of symmetry in American racism. One way to argue that the evil of racism is not uniquely wedded to whiteness is to argue that it is a moral failing that lives equally in blackness.

One way to argue that the evil of racism is not uniquely wedded to whiteness is to argue that it is a moral failing that lives equally in blackness.

It’s a notion that seems to be gaining traction even outside the fever swamps. Last year, two professors wrote in the Washington Post about their research showing that white Americans think anti-white bias has been on the rise in recent decades, and that it now constitutes a bigger problem in the country than anti-black bias.

Read the whole thing.  I do find this as fascinating as I do frustrating: the idea that someone can watch that torture video, with its constant anti-white racial slurs, and struggle to call it racism? Really? Gene Demby loses me completely here. What it says to me is that he and those he talks to are willing to employ a double standard based on race, giving. I think that Demby, intentionally or not, puts his finger on why so many whites believe that engaging in a cross-racial dialogue about racism is largely pointless: because some black people are so wedded to the idea that they are somehow protected from the sin of racism. As if admitting that basic human truth — that every single one of us has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that there are no sinful behaviors that any of us are prevented by virtue of our race, our gender, our religion, or anything else, from falling captive to — would be in some sense to hand white racists a victory.

If Demby and his black friends can look at that Chicago video and struggle to call it “racism,” then that inability compromises any dialogue on racism they might have with whites. I don’t blame them for worrying that whites who don’t actually want to confront the realities of history and anti-black racism in this country would look at the Chicago video and say, “See, black people can be racist too, therefore we’re even.” The “therefore” in that sentence is where the lie is, and Demby is right to be vigilant against any attempt to rewrite history.

On the other hand, the idea that racism is not a moral failing that black people have too, like white people and every other people on the planet, is not true. Black people can be racist because they are fully human, and like all humans, can be guilty of every sin imaginable. It is true that racism in the heart of a person or class of persons who hold power is more dangerous socially than in the hearts of the powerless, but to deny that it is toxic, period, is to deny the truth. When those who have been oppressed come to power, they face the very same temptation to mistreat those who are weaker and more vulnerable. It’s human nature. Over the years, I’ve had conversations with white teachers who teach in public schools that are predominantly (even 100 percent) minority, and whose administrations are 100 percent black. They report casual racism as part of their daily experience there. In one case, a teacher told me that the principal brought in a motivational speaker who stood in the school gym and told the gathered student body (100 percent black) that white teachers should not be trusted. The teacher told me that the white teachers on faculty looked at each other as if to say, “What are we supposed to do now?”

It happens. Again, it happens because the human heart is corrupt. Every one of us has to fight all the time to refuse to hate the Other, especially when the Other deserves it. What is the alternative?

I go back to Dante’s Purgatorio, to the terrace of Wrath, where, the poet tells us, those who struggled with anger go to have that knot undone. Dante depicts sin, and the tendency to sin, as knots that bind us and keep us from proceeding to full union with God, who is all-holy, and all-pure. The terrace of Wrath is a place filled with blinding smoke; this is meant to highlight how anger impairs our vision. There, the pilgrim Dante meets a sinner named Marco the Lombard, who is there to have his weakness for anger unknotted so he can keep moving towards God.

The smoke is so blinding that they cannot lay eyes on each other, even though they are standing face to face. Marco says to Dante:

“I’ll follow you as far as I’m allowed,”
he answered, “and if smoke won’t let us see,
hearing will serve instead to keep us linked.”


In the Inferno, the damned are absolute prisoners of their sin, for all eternity. One consequence of this is that there is no possibility for human contact or solidarity in any form. In Purgatorio, though, everyone has been saved by the grace of God, because at some point before death, they repented of their sins and begged for God’s mercy. They are not being punished in Purgatorio for their sins, which have been forgiven, but rather being purified so they can be strong enough to bear the glory of God. (If you’ve read C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, you know how this works.)

Anyway, one thing you notice about the pilgrim Dante’s journey through Purgatorio is that at every turn, the penitents are helping each other bear their mutual burden. Community, which has been compromised by sin, is being restored through humble repentance. Notice in Marco’s lines above, he concedes the reality that because of sin, they cannot look into each other’s eyes, but at least they can listen to each other.

Dante says to Marco:

The world indeed has been stripped utterly
of every virtue; as you said to me,
it cloaks — and is cloaked by — perversity.

Some place the cause in heaven, some, below;
but I beseech you to define the cause,
that, seeing it, I may show it to others.”

Some background: the pilgrim Dante has come from a world — Tuscany — that has become more or less a war of all against all. Faction fights faction, family fights family, families fight within themselves, the Church is caught up in these petty wars, and so on. This really happened. The poet Dante was exiled from his city, Florence, because of this fighting, and told that if he returned, they would kill him. He wrote the Commedia in part to answer the question, “What happened to me? What happened to us? Why did it happen? How can things be made right again?”
So what the pilgrim Dante (meaning the character in the poet Dante’s verse) is asking Marco is this: “The world I come from is a mess. We’re all at each other’s throats. Some say that our fate is written in the stars, and we can’t help ourselves. Others say that this is our own fault. Tell us what’s really happening, so I can go back and tell the others.”

(Note especially that Dante asks Marco to speak words to him that will allow him to see the truth. Interesting how hearing can bring insight capable of dispelling the smoke of wrath.)

Marco responds:

A sigh, from which his sorrow formed an “Oh,”
was his beginning; then he answered: “Brother,
the world is blind, and you come from the world.

You living ones continue to assign
to heaven every cause, as if it were
the necessary source of every motion.

If this were so, then your free will would be
destroyed, and there would be no equity
in joy for doing good, in grief for evil.

The heavens set your appetites in motion –
not all your appetites, but even if
that were the case, you have received both light

on good and evil, and free will, which though
it struggle in its first wars with the heavens,
then conquers all, if it has been well nurtured.

On greater power and a better nature
you, who are free, depend; that Force engenders
the mind in you, outside the heavens’ sway.

Thus, if the present world has gone astray,
in you is the cause, in you it’s to be sought…

Marco is speaking specifically to the medieval belief in astrology, which said that the motions of the stars directed human affairs. It’s not true, says Marco. “The heavens set your appetites in motion,” he says, which, in a modern interpretation, could be said to mean, “Your passions are natural, and you have come into a world that conditions you to use them in certain ways.”

But, he goes on, being human, you have the God-given gift of free will, and you also have the God-given gift of knowing right from wrong. We are not animals, slaves to our instincts. True, your free will struggles against the forces of nature, including the passions, but if you feed your soul with the grace of God, and refuse to be conquered by those passions, God will untie the knot that binds you to them, and you will be free.

“In you is the cause” of all the world’s brokenness, says Marco, who goes on to say that the problems of the world come from “misrule” — that is, people choosing evil over good, and disorder over right order.

What’s especially interesting to me about Marco’s words to Dante is his use of “you” and “your”. Marco is speaking of humanity in general, but he is also speaking to Dante, man to man. The lesson I take from this episode is the one the Fathers of the Church teach: if you want to dispel evil and injustice, and work for true peace and true justice, start with your own heart, because “in you is the cause.”

At the beginning of Dante’s pilgrimage up the holy mountain, he learns that he can make no progress in the spiritual life without humility, symbolized by a reed. That is to say, he must recognize that without God’s grace, he is powerless before his sins. In the Inferno he learned that pride is the root of all sin; therefore its antidote, humility, is the basis for its eradication. In the divine economy of this poem (and of the Catholic Church), the only thing a poor sinner can do is to ask God for mercy, and to labor ascetically in prayer, fasting, and repentance, so that the purifying grace of God can enter in to heal and restore the soul.

What does any of this have to do with race and racism in America? This, I believe.

We are all of us Americans — black, white, and all the rest — thrown into a situation none of us chose. We inherited the good and the bad, all consequences of an infinite number of choices made before we were born — choices made by sinners, just like us. The consequences of these choices are knots tying us to the fallen world we did not make. They are knots tying some of us to the arrogance of unearned privilege, and to indifference to the pain of others. They are knots tying others to anger at injustice, or what they perceive is injustice. They are knots tying still others to resentment that they are blamed for things they did not do, and would even have seen undone, could they go back in time. And on and on and on, in a chain of causality stretching back to the Garden of Eden.

Do we want to be set free? Do we want to be healed? We cannot reverse history, but we can free ourselves from the knots that hold us bound — or, to be precise, we can allow the Holy Spirit to do that for us. Forgiveness is the only way. As I wrote in my book How Dante Can Save Your Life, I struggled greatly with my own anger at the unjust way my father treated me. Forgive me for getting preachy here, but through reading Dante, God unmasked how I had unwittingly allowed that traumatic relationship from childhood to define my entire world, even warping my relationship with God the Father. Repenting of that was only the start of healing within me. I still had to fight against the deep anger I had inside over that injustice, which had put an enormous burden on me, including chronic physical illness.

And I was doing this in real time. My dad was still alive then, and in his pride, completely unwilling to consider that he had done anything wrong. He preferred to think of himself as blameless, no matter what — and this only deepened my anger. And not only anger: when I was especially sick, I would be flattened on my bed with weakness, and allow my heart to fill with envy at my dad and the others in my family who rejected me. How can they live in peace, thinking that they have done no wrong, when I suffer from the unjust way they treat me? I thought.

That is envy, and it is a sin. I envied all of them their untroubled hearts. And my anger fed on my envy, all of which fed on an actual injustice. I would talk to my dad about this — my father, who could see that I was sick, and who knew (because the doctor had said so) that the physical illness came from unresolved stress between us — but my dad would not hear me. It was tearing me up.

Here, from my book, is what Dante made me see:

… that people do not confront when they make themselves manifest. Later, I went to confession with my priest, Father Matthew (who, as is customary with Orthodox priests, addressed me by my confirmation name, Benedict). I confessed my own envy and anger to him. He asked me, “What do you want?” And I said:

Which is what Dante taught me I had to do if I wanted to be free of this curse. Reading Gene Demby talking about how he and his friends couldn’t call what was plainly racism “racism” because they feared it would give white people a sense of being free from judgment — well, I heard myself standing in the confessional, raging against the unjust indifference of my family to my own pain and rejection. It wasn’t just about me; this  rejection that, in truth, was tearing our entire family apart, though they couldn’t see it.

I didn’t have it within me to overcome this anger. Only the Holy Spirit could do it within me. By refusing any expectation of justice, and by choosing love over justice, I could be free from this knot that kept me bound to wrath and envy. There was no other way. And, truth to tell, I was not a complete innocent at all. I knew the hurt I had caused them in the past. I didn’t mean to do it, but I had done it. Besides, Father Matthew had sternly reminded me that Jesus Christ forgave me though there was no way I could possibly undo the sins I had committed. He forgave because He loved me more than He loved justice. This is the meaning of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. As a Christian, I benefited from the loving forgiveness of God; I had no right to withhold it to others.

It just about killed me to humble myself enough to let that injustice go. And the force of my own victimhood — which, again, was based in an actual injustice — was immense:

Here’s what you don’t see in the Dante book, because the narrative in the text ended before my father died. Later in the spring — on Good Friday 2015, in fact — my dad apologized to me for the way he had treated me. It was a moment of intense power and grace, and reconciliation. That did not make everything perfect between us, but it unknotted me inside, such that I was able to spend the last week of his life with him, in home hospice care, living by his side, caring for him, giving him his medication, reading to him, rubbing his feet with lotion, and, when the moment came, holding his hand as he slipped into eternity.

We won. I didn’t win; we won. My dad was the way he was in part because he carried with him the burden of injustice wrought against him by others in his family, and by the world. Methodists don’t have a rite of confession, but he nevertheless called for a pastor days before he died, and made a private confession. He allowed the Holy Spirit to untie that knot.

That’s the best any of us can hope for in this life. So, to return to the original topic, the reader is correct that to bring in ridiculous talk of reparations for injustices, real or alleged, against women, transgenders, and the like, devalues talk of reparations for African-Americans. But it is also true that focusing on monetary reparations is to be in thrall to a false idol. No amount of money in the world can make up for the crime of slavery. No amount of money in the world can make up for the thousand million smaller crimes and sins committed by fallen men and women, because of racism. No amount of money in the world can cleanse those sins away, or remove their effects from the descendants of those sinned against.

And no crimes, no matter how terrible, makes any one of us innocent of sin before God, or incapable of sinning against others as we ourselves were sinned against.

That is the human condition. We will only loose the knots that bind us to our history of cruelty and the cycle of injustice through love. What that means practically, I don’t know. But I believe the church, and only the church, can be the agency of true racial reconciliation and peace. Talk about “reparations” that excludes what the Bible tells us about sin and justice is in vain.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now